I read In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson so long ago that I forgot I hadn't written about it until I ran across it in the New York Times list of 100 Best Books of 2011. I know, this forgetting doesn't bode well for my feelings about Mr. Larson's book, but I will plead an ongoing nasty feeling that I was forgetting something anytime I made a list of books I needed to write about and, of course, the general disastrous chaos of my life in this annus horribilis.
So in brief--I promise this time--here's what I can tell you about the book. In 1933, William A. Dodd, a history professor, won the not at all coveted job of ambassador to Berlin. He hesitated--being an ambassador was usually a very expensive job held by scions of rich families who could use their own wealth to pay for the vast amount of entertaining expected in European cities, and he just didn't have that kind of money. However, he thought that the ambassadorship would give him the time he needed to complete his passion project, a history of the antebellum South. After all, being an ambassador mostly involved going to events and occasional meetings, right?
Wrong--this was Berlin with Hitler and the Third Reich in ascendance, and Dodd found himself consumed by trying to balance the directive of the US government to stay out of German business with his increasing disgust and horror with the blatant atrocities going on around him. He also had to contend with the escapades of his family, particularly his daughter Martha.
She was considered to be very attractive and had already made the most of that in Chicago. Just in her early twenties, Martha had married hastily once and either was getting divorced or in the proces of being divorced when she went to Germany (I told you, it's been a while). I believe she was also was practically engaged to another man (or was that before she got married?). And was having an affair with Carl Sandberg, the much older poet and friend of the family. That didn't stop her from enjoying the company of many other men while in Berlin. Many other men--a veritable international/political sampler platter of men. She had affairs with Rudolph Diels, the head of the Gestapo, a Russian communist spy named Boris, someone French, Thomas Wolfe when he was in town, others whose names and connections I don't remember. Martha's own writing about her time in Berlin is probably Larson's main source, so I did sometimes suspect that maybe she was exaggerating, or bragging a bit. However, there were Americans in the consul who complained privately about the wild behavior of Martha and the Dodd son, Bill, so there must have been something to it.
Martha clearly was the type who likes to shock; if others said it was bad, she would claim it as wonderful and defiantly partake of it often. When she met people who warned her that the Nazis were not just a strict government but had evil plans, she boasted about how impressed she was by the fresh-faced, healthy Nazis who seemed to be doing a wonderful job whipping the country into shape. She added that she and her family didn't really care much for Jews themselves.
It sounds worse now than it did then. Most Americans at the time weren't very concerned with Germany's political situation other than to be glad the country hadn't gone communist. Rumbling about fascist crackdowns and harsh treatment of German Jews just meant that you might not want to visit Germany or felt glad you didn't live there. Maybe it was bad for Germany, but that wouldn't affect Americans. Mr. Dodd's instruction from the American government was basically just to stay out of German business.
It did, though--the young Dodds and their friends got their first inkling that the Nazi goosestepping was more than amusing when they witnessed Americans being beaten for not saluting Nazi dignitaries. Other similar incidents came to their attention when Mr. Dodd was called on to help Americans in trouble for similarly mild offenses, even though Americans were supposed to be exempt from such displays. For a while Martha tried to rationalize Nazi harshness, but even she eventually came around, thanks in no small part to the education she received from her Russian communist lover Boris and other Americans who had lived in Berlin long enough to see things change.
Mr. Dodd eventually wore out from the ambassador's lifestyle. It did indeed prove to be financially difficult for him; other diplomats, both foreign and American, snickered at the Dodd's rental of half a house and the well-used American car they had had shipped over from their home in Illinois. His money issues and the fact that he wasn't part of the foreign service "rich old boys' club" made it even harder for him to deal with internal staff problems and politics. Dodd began to realize the danger of the Nazi regime, but couldn't make his warning heard. Frustrated and exhaused, he finally asked to be removed from his post and returned home. He died a few months later. Many of the people Martha knew in Berlin were executed, including her lover Boris.
In the Garden of Beasts is a quick, easy, read that gives us an unusual glimpse into the Third Reich, which, for many Americans, appears in our consciousness more around 1939 when its intentions were fully revealed, not when it was still a creeping horror. I liked it better than Larson's Thunderstruck, but rate it below his The Devil in the White City. My main complaint was that the book was so heavily dependent on information from Martha's writings, as well as that of her boyfriend Rudolph Diels (who got out of Germany just in time when he angered the wrong people) that it felt claustrophobic sometimes. Don't misunderstand me--I love primary sources, but that type of material has to be balanced out with a wider, macro view of the time and the place, and I didn't feel I quite got enough of that. Or maybe I just don't remember it. I apologize to Mr. Larson for even trying to be accurate after reading his book so many months ago. Nevertheless, I still definitely recommend this book (and if you haven't read it, The Devil in the White City.).